Friday, 25 May 2018

Universal values can't be unique

In “The desire of nations” in 1974, R Tudur Jones wrote: “An Englishman never calls himself a nationalist.  This is one of the characteristics of English nationalism.”  In its essence, the very idea that ‘nationalism’ is something from which ‘our’ nation is uniquely exempt is a highly nationalistic statement, necessarily underpinned by a perception of uniqueness and specialness when compared to all those ‘others’.
It’s unfair, of course, to say that all English people share this sense of uniqueness in the world, but it often seems as though most politicians and ministers do, and we saw a classic example from Michael Gove last week, attempting to claim that Brexit was nothing at all to do with identity politics – that was something from which only Scots (and presumably, by extension, Welsh independentistas as well) suffered.
One of the other characteristics of most English nationalists is that they seem to suffer from a complete inability to recognise the difference between England and Britain.  Monday’s tweet from Conservative HQ was an absolute classic:
.@BrandonLewis :The citizens of our country have created for themselves an inclusive & thoughtful English identity. One based on the values of freedom, fairness & justice. Principals that are not just shared in England under the St George’s Cross, but across our whole Union #PX
The stress on identity rather undermines what Gove said just a few days earlier, of course, but consistency is hardly one of the current government's great strengths.  It shows a complete confusion between ‘England’ and the ‘Union’ which can only encourage people to believe that the English consider themselves the superior driving force.  But leaving aside both that (and the fact that the ‘principals’ which we apparently all share obviously don’t include a commitment to accurate spelling), only a died-in-the-wool nationalist could really believe that “freedom, fairness and justice” are values which uniquely underpin one particular national identity.  Do they really believe – and expect the rest of us to believe – that these values are found nowhere else?
The mantra that the UK is a uniquely free, fair and just country is arrogant to say the least, but it's also inaccurate, to a greater or lesser extent, on all three counts.  The mantra is coming from people who are in the process of removing our freedom of movement across the continent of Europe, presiding over one of the most unequal and unfair economies in the developed world, and trying to find a way of opting out of international systems of justice such as the Human Rights Act.  They are, in effect, claiming that an adherence to values which they are actively working to undermine is the defining aspect of ‘our’ nationality.  And they're largely being allowed to get away with it.
English/British nationalists implicitly believe that there is such a thing as English/British (they generally regard the two as the same thing) identity but are obviously having a great deal of difficulty in defining what it is and on what it is based.  They feel a need to promote the idea of Englishness/Britishness in order to maintain the integrity of ‘this precious union’ (© Theresa May), but are struggling for a basis on which to do so.  And I can understand why they are struggling: scratch the surface just a little and two key aspects of what makes for the identity with which they are grappling emerge – royalty and wars.  But what sort of a nation is it which can only define itself, when pressed, in terms of the wars in which it has engaged and the idea of hereditary authority?  Yet that is what they fall back on – they are the two consistent themes in the promotion of ‘national’ identity by the state over recent years, and especially since the Scottish referendum of 2014.
The values which they exclusively claim to themselves are, in reality, universal.  They may not be universally applied in the world in which we live, but not being universally applied doesn’t mean that they’re not universally applicable.  Universal values, by definition, cannot uniquely define any nation, and any nation which truly felt they were core to its being would be trying to work with others to spread those values, not to undermine them.
To return to the quote in the opening sentence: just because people say that they aren’t nationalists doesn’t mean that it’s true; it’s more likely to mean the exact opposite.  Brexit didn’t open the particular can of worms which is English/British nationalism at its worst, but it certainly made it easier to express.  And it should remind all of us that constraining precisely that sort of nationalism was, from the outset, one of the core aims of the whole European project.  In that sense Brexit is very much an unpleasantly nationalist project.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Trains, boats and planes

Many years ago, I had a boss who regularly used to say that “if we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs if we had some eggs”.  His point, albeit repeated ad nauseam, was a valid one: people always come up with new obstacles and dependencies which prevent them getting on with the task in hand, and as soon as one dependency is resolved, there’s always another one.  And sometimes, they’re even circular.
It was the Foreign Secretary who brought this to mind this week, with his expression of a wish to have a new aeroplane to fly himself and other Brexiters around the world doing new trade deals.  Suitably painted, (presumably in union flags – but definitely not grey, apparently) this would project this undefinable thing called ‘soft power’ in ways which would make people fall over themselves to do new trade deals.  He’s got form on this as well; it’s not so long ago that he was calling for a new royal yacht with the same objective in mind. 
They told us that Brexit would be easy; that the rest of the world would be falling over themselves to do new deals with us if only we supported Brexit.  But now it seems that we need a bit more than that.  If only we had a royal yacht we’d be able to do lots of deals if only we had a shiny new aeroplane as well.  I don’t doubt that if we gave him both, he’d come up with a host of other essentials which are prerequisites for doing the deals of the century; failure will never be his fault, it will always be everyone else’s for not giving him the proper tools for the job.
Meanwhile, in a faraway universe whose existence Brexiters continually deny, those countries which were supposed to be lining up to do deals with the UK are actually lining up to do deals with the EU.  Apparently, from their clearly misguided perspectives, a market of 600 million is more attractive than a market of 60 million.  Who in their right mind would ever have thought that?  Even worse, those antipodeans don’t even realise that they are supposed to get new yachts and aeroplanes first, so that they can project their ‘soft power’.  If we would only buy Boris a plane and a boat, he’d be down under like a shot projecting a bit of this ‘soft power’ stuff, and then they’d fall into line and understand that they need to talk to their former colonialists and masters first, not those beastly European types.
Alternatively, the UK could make a positive effort to try and engage with the rest of the world on terms that everyone else understands, rather than demanding that they all fall into line with the UK.  Just a thought.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Not being worse

In normal times, a demand from the leader of the opposition that an incompetent Prime Minister, patently making very little progress in managing her own party on the major issue of the day, let alone managing relations with people outside both the party and the country, would cause many people to conclude, “Well, he couldn’t do much worse, could he?”.  Not doing worse is hardly a compliment to anyone’s ability, of course, and it isn’t the same as ‘doing better’.
But these are not normal times.  When the leader of the opposition shares the same red lines as the Prime Minister, and seems to be essentially demanding the same thing – a unique customs relationship where the rules applying to other members don’t apply to the UK, and access to the EU single market on the same terms as members but without following the same rules – and where he would face the same problem of keeping his own party on side with whatever he says, there is little left to distinguish between the two.  Perhaps he’d be a better negotiator, but I’m sure that I’m not alone in wondering on what basis anyone would believe that Corbyn’s negotiating skills are going to be superior to those being deployed at the moment; there seems no obvious reason to believe that they would be.
None of that invalidates the, “he couldn’t do any worse” argument however; if only because it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Give us the money?

The Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster told us yesterday that the UK Government had saved at least £430 million by not electrifying the railway line between Cardiff and Swansea, and suggested that the whole of the money saved should be made available for other transport schemes in Wales.  I’ve got a better idea: if the whole of the money saved by not electrifying the line is available for spending on transport schemes in Wales, why don’t we spend it on electrifying the line between Cardiff and Swansea?  Because, at its simplest, if the cash is available, why not spend it as originally planned?
It wasn’t a lack of money which, allegedly, drove the decision to cancel this part of the electrification project, but an analysis of the cost-benefit ratio, which concluded that the scheme was not good value for money, using the criteria laid down by the government itself.  But whether those criteria are valid or not is ultimately a question of judgement.  They are based, broadly, on a comparison between the cost of doing the work and the value of the time saved by passengers; but given the well-known problems of the railway line west of Cardiff, the time savings were always going to be minimal for that section of track.  It’s much harder to put hard cash values on other benefits of the scheme, such as increased reliability and reduced environmental costs - both from moving away from diesel and attracting more traffic from the roads.
However, the idea that money, once allocated to a scheme in Wales, should be available for other schemes in Wales if the original scheme is cancelled is one with which I’m hardly going to disagree.  The logic of that, though, is that the money and the responsibility should have been allocated to Wales in the first place.  Then we could have decided whether to electrify or not.  The strangest part of all in the story from Westminster is that the man demanding the money comes to Wales anyway is historically one of those most opposed to devolving extra responsibilities to Wales.  Still, he’s a Tory – logic and consistency are not to be expected.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Keeping it a secret

On Monday, the Western Mail published an English version of an article previously written for Barn by Professor Richard Wyn Jones, in which he called for Plaid Cymru to embrace republicanism in the light of the debacle over the renaming on the Second Severn Crossing. 
One of the points that he made was that “Plaid Cymru may not be a republican party but it is a party of republicans”.  In my own experience, that’s entirely true; Plaid’s members are overwhelmingly of a republican bent.  It’s not unanimous though; there are some who, for various reasons other than short term pragmatism support the continuation of the current monarchy, and a few who want the restoration of a Welsh monarchy.  Prof. Jones’ basic point, though, is sound.  Despite the lack of complete unanimity on the question, the logic of seeking independence under a system which continues to locate sovereignty, even symbolically, in the capital of another country has always escaped me.
And a second point which he makes, which is that “…it’s more than likely that most of the Welsh electorate (mistakenly) think that this [republicanism] is already the party’s stance is also probably true, although I’m not completely convinced that many electors (other than those already persuaded one way or the other about republicanism) have given enough thought to the question for me to be as certain about this second point.
Let’s accept, however, that both points are valid, the question that obviously arises is ‘why be so shy on the issue?’  I can think of two apparently good reasons, and they are reasons which led me over many years to be equally shy on the issue; the question now is whether, as Prof. Jones suggests, the time has come to be less shy. 
The first reason is that whilst Plaid’s membership may be, by and large, instinctively republican, the same is not true for those electors who support the party in elections, let alone for the wider electorate as a whole.  And given that retaining the English monarch as head of state has not significantly restricted the independence of countries such as Canada, why conflate the two issues of independence and republicanism?  It’s easy to dismiss the replacement of the monarch by an elected head of state as an unnecessary complication of an argument for autonomy, when it is the autonomy which matters more. 
And the second reason is the way in which the UK establishment and media have managed to attach the word ‘republican’ so firmly to Sinn Féin and the IRA.  It gives the word a connotation which I can easily understand any constitutional party wanting to avoid.  Whether independentistas should allow words to be defined for them in such a fashion is an interesting question in itself; but it’s easier to debate than to change. 
Prof. Jones sees the bridge renaming fiasco as being a catalyst which could enable a committed party of independentistas to challenge what is, as he identifies, a clear attempt by the state to promote a particular view of the world, and to present a clear alternative.  I agree with the need to present a clear alternative vision, and with the reign of the current monarch inevitably drawing towards a conclusion, I suspect that support for republicanism is likely to grow across the UK, not just in Wales.  The time to make the case for the current monarch to be the last is now, not after the next one has been installed.  It would be a curious situation were the argument for republicanism to make greater progress outside the independence movement than inside it. 
I wonder, though, and not for the first time, whether the problem is not that Plaid, as a movement of independentistas, is failing to adopt republicanism as a clear and stated goal, but that it isn’t really a party of independentistas; because if it isn’t, then the expectation is wholly unrealistic.  It’s a point which has struck me more than once listening to people talking about the name of a bridge – much of the criticism has been on the lack of consultation over the naming, rather than over the role of the person selected as a basis for the new name.  It has often sounded as though people are trying to make a point without actually making it.  Reinforcing the idea that people might be secret republicans who are afraid to come out and say it is probably the worst of all worlds.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Brave or hypocritical?

There’s something very uncomfortable about a world in which future peace depends on the Iranian Ayatollahs being more reasonable than the President of the USA.  We can but hope.  Whether one regards the deal from which Trump has walked away as good, bad or indifferent (and Trump’s principal reason for declaring it bad seems to be more to do with the fact that Obama negotiated it than with any of the detail), the underlying principle was that Iran was offered the economic carrot of a reduction in sanctions in return for agreeing to halt some aspects of its nuclear programme and permit international inspections.  The fact that Iran may have done some things which it never promised not to do isn’t really a very good reason for other signatories to stop doing the things to which they did agree.
But Trump has done more than simply removing the American carrot; he has made it clear that, whilst he and the US are reneging on their part of the deal, he still expects Iran not only to honour its part, but to do other things (or cease doing some things) as well, with an implied threat to back that up.  He has attempted to replace the carrot with a very big stick, and behave in the style of a schoolyard bully.  The European response has, thus far, been robust.  The determination of Macron, May and Merkel to seek to uphold the deal is to be welcomed.  There’s a ‘but’ to that, however: how far are they prepared to go?
In purely economic terms, the US has been doing little trade with Iran anyway since the sanctions were lifted, although there was at least one big deal in the pipeline.  An $18 billion deal to sell Boeing aircraft will now, inevitably, be cancelled and there will be an impact on jobs in the US.  Some might see that as an opportunity for Boeing’s main competitor, the European company Airbus, to fill the gap and sell extra planes on top of its existing $20 billion order from Iran.  Things are not quite that simple, though.  As Craig Murray has pointed out, there are US-made components in aircraft made by Airbus, which make the Airbus order itself fall foul of Trump’s decision.  The default position is the US expectation that the Airbus order will also be cancelled, or else the European companies involved will also be subject to US sanctions.  Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions on Iran doesn’t only affect US companies; it also applies to any non-US company which does business with both Iran and the US.
And that issue goes wider than just aircraft.  It also affects the banking system, for instance.  As this article in the New Yorker highlights, any European bank facilitating trade with Iran will leave it open to fines and sanctions in US courts.  The bully isn’t just aiming to stop US-Iran trade; he’s aiming to force his so-called allies and friends into line as well.  In that context, for the joint UK-France-Germany declaration to have any meaning at all, it requires using the strength of the massive trading bloc which the EU constitutes to resist American economic power – the EU is the only trading unit in the world in a position to do that – and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that Europe can uphold the deal despite Trump.
It’s just as well, then, that none of those three European leaders making their bold statements is seeking to leave the EU, weaken the bloc’s economic power, and align itself ever more closely with the US economy.  That would be hypocritical, as well as silly, wouldn’t it?

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Labour might be the biggest problem

The repeated defeats for the government over the Brexit bill in the House of Lords are certainly a problem for the Prime Minister.  Much of the so-called ‘progress’ in negotiations with the EU27 has been achieved by simply kicking the can further and further down the road, whilst phase 1 of the real negotiations – those internal to the Conservative Party – continues, not only with no sign of resolution, but with every indication of hardening attitudes and increasing bitterness.  And until the successful conclusion of that phase 1, something looking less likely on a daily basis, substantive discussions with the EU27 will remain where they have been since day 1, namely making limited progress in private meetings on some of the technical details, but getting absolutely nowhere on the key issues.
But their lordships have caused an even bigger problem for the Labour Party – and more specifically, for its leader.  With the requirement to negotiate continued membership of the single market, via the European Economic Area, now included in the Bill, the House of Commons will have to vote very explicitly to either retain that amendment or to overturn it.  It seems highly probable that, on an entirely free vote, the Commons would vote to retain the amendment, whilst on a whipped vote, sufficient Labour and Tory MPs would be prepared to follow their respective leaders to kill the amendment.  It’s a crunch point for Corbyn, even more so than for May.  Corbyn has an open goal in front of him; a chance to lead his party into a vote which would almost certainly see the downfall of the current Prime Minister and government, and possible even a catastrophic split opening up inside the Tory Party, yet all the indications are that he will opt to throw May a lifeline and support her determination to leave the single market, and her entirely debunked argument that it is somehow possible to have the ‘exact same benefits’ without membership.
There is, of course, something to be said for a political leader who decides that sticking to his core beliefs is more important than seizing party political advantage; principles are still important to some of us at least.  The problem, in this case, is in identifying exactly what those principles are.  Replying to the five Labour MPs from North-East England, who have broken ranks to call for a referendum on the terms of Brexit, a spokesperson for Corbyn was reported as saying that ‘staying in the EEA could undermine a future Labour government’s ability “to intervene” in UK industries with particular issues around state aid and reversing privatisation’.  The problem with this is that the argument that membership of the EU somehow prevents a government from nationalising industries or providing state aid has been thoroughly debunked many times, including by people within Labour itself.  What membership of the EU prevents is not state aid or nationalisation per se, only forms of state aid or nationalisation which give unfair competitive advantage to a business.  And that’s something also banned by WTO rules, and something to which I suspect Labour itself would strongly object if done elsewhere with the aim of undercutting UK industries.
That leaves us with the rather vague objection that membership of the single market whilst being outside the EU would leave the UK as a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker; obliged to follow the rules whilst having so say in their preparation and agreement.  It’s entirely true, of course.  But it’s going to be equally true of any arrangement which comes anywhere near providing the ‘exact same benefits’, and Labour are being utterly dishonest in continuing to argue otherwise.  It is clear by now, even if it wasn’t before, that there are only three options open to the UK: the complete break favoured by the ideological Brexiteers; continued membership of the single market through the EEA whilst being outside the structures of the EU itself; and remaining a full member of the EU. 
Outside the hard-core Brexiteers of the Tory Party (a comparatively small group in reality), parliamentary opinion looks to be divided between the second and third option, largely as a result of differing opinions on whether the referendum result was absolute and final or whether in the light of evidence and shifting opinions there is value in asking the people to confirm or change the decision taken by referendum.  The tragedy is that it is the first option which is looking increasingly likely as the Brexit tail wags the dog, ably aided and abetted by an opposition party whose leader seems determined to support the hard-core Brexiteers for reasons which even he himself seems unable to articulate clearly to anyone.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Queuing up to be demonised?

One of the ways in which the rich and powerful elite in any state preserve their power and wealth is by managing the perceptions of those not in their number in such a way that they blame each other for their comparative lack of power and wealth, rather than blaming those who hold that power and wealth.  At it’s simplest, it’s a case of divide and rule.  And the more that they can divide, the longer they can rule.  It’s a job which is made easier if enough people are sufficiently discontented with their lot.
So they blame the poor for their poverty and the unemployed for their lack of work, and encourage the working population to see the least well off as scroungers and layabouts, the solution to which is to cut their benefits and make it harder for them to feed themselves and their families, so that they become less of a burden on ‘hard-working families’.
Or they blame immigrants for taking their jobs and houses, encouraging those same ‘hard-working’ families to believe that it is due to immigrants that schools and hospitals are overcrowded and underfunded so that they themselves can’t get an adequate education or health service which meets their needs.
Then they blame the EU.  If only the taxes of those ‘hard-working families’ weren’t being sent to those horrid Eurocrats, we’d have more than enough money to provide a decent health service and well-equipped schools.
And then they blame the elderly.  If only the money of ‘hard-working families’ wasn’t being used to subsidise the pensions and care needs of all those old people, just imagine how much easier it would be for the younger people to get on the housing ladder and enjoy the increasing level of affluence which their parents’ generation enjoyed.
And people are taken in.  A compliant media – with its own vested interest in the status quo – peddles the same lines day in and day out, while one group after another is demonised and punished for taking money away from those ‘hard-working families’.  And in the meantime, the richest 1% becomes ever richer, accumulating a greater and greater proportion of the national wealth; this is assumed to be ‘normal’ and anyone challenging it is a dangerous enemy.
Such is the power of the ideology which the current political and economic system has created around itself.  It’s built on the lies and deceit of the few and, above all, the gullibility and compliance of the many.  For how long do we allow it to continue?

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Brexit and pinheads

One of the features of the greatest religious schisms of the past is that they often seemed to revolve around what look, to the outsider, like relatively petty differences of doctrine, but they consumed absolutely those involved in them.  Today’s Great Brexit Debate within the UK cabinet bears more than a passing resemblance.  We are told that they are today debating between two options, neither of which solves the Irish border problem, and neither of which is going to be acceptable to the EU27, but both of which are presented with increasing zeal by their respective supporters.
Brexiteers of both denominations are trying to pretend that finding the best method of making it easy to cross a hard border with the Republic is in every sense the same thing as not having a hard border at all.  I’m not sure whether this redefinition of ‘same’ from what it used to mean when I was young owes more to George Orwell and newspeak, or Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty.  I’d like to think that it was some clever form of satire, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that they really do not understand that ‘no border’ and ‘easy border to cross’ are not at all the same thing, and that no amount of mangling the language can make them the same.
After months of trying to avoid coming up with a firm proposal on anything, during which they have been kicking the tin down the road and pretending that that amounts to agreement, things are finally coming to a head.  Brexit has become a religion, with fervour replacing logic and one set of true believers denouncing their own government as heretics or worse.  In the process, the Conservative Party’s MPs and Ministers are engaging in a very public and utterly pointless row about which of two unworkable alternatives they will ultimately ask the EU27 to formally reject.  Can someone please remind me again: precisely how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Finding allies in strange places

When the House of Lords amends legislation presented by a Labour government, certain sectors of the media are keen to present the institution as a bulwark for freedom and democracy against the evils of socialism; when they amend legislation presented by a Tory government, they become traitors and fifth columnists.  That’s how it appears to me anyway.  I’ll admit to a deep sense of unease that the UK’s system of democracy is so badly broken that the defence of parliament’s right to take the decisions rather than be simply railroaded by the government is only being defended and promoted by a bunch of hereditaries, appointees and bishops.  Some might argue that it demonstrates the value of having a second chamber which can take a less partisan approach to whatever subject is being debated.  I think it demonstrates the need for a parliament which has more distance between it and the government with more room and time for proper debate and scrutiny, rather than one where MPs are simply whipped either for or against the government of the day.  (At a more mundane level, it does demonstrate why at least some of us independentistas believe that – for as long as such an undemocratic and unaccountable body as the House of Lords exists – it is better to have a voice there than not.)
It remains to be seen whether the government will attempt to reverse all the defeats being inflicted upon it when the legislation returns to the Commons.  It’s hard to see at the moment how May can afford not to try, with the extremists on her own side demanding that she do so; but it’s equally hard to see how she can get a majority in the Commons on all of the issues on which she’s been defeated.  When members of her own party are describing the compromise towards which both parliamentary arithmetic and economic reality are pushing the government as ‘cretinous’, it is clear that the underlying tensions over Europe which brought down so many of her predecessors are getting stronger rather than weaker.  There is only a limited period during which the government can continue to stick its fingers in its ears and claim that the EU’s categorical statements are merely an ‘opening negotiating position’.  Meanwhile, other Brexiteers seem to believe that all be well if only the Prime Minister would sack her chief negotiator.  The problem, apparently, is simply that the UK is not being forceful enough in demanding that the EU dismantle itself in order to accommodate the UK.
I don’t know how all this will end, but I suspect that the only thing left which gives the government and the Tory party any chance of surviving in power until Brexit day next year – let alone until the end of the transition period – is the abject failure of the main opposition party to seize the opportunity in front of it.  Public opinion seems to me to be moving, albeit slowly, and even if it’s not yet clear that opinion has turned against Brexit itself, there is increasing evidence that majority opinion would tend to favour remaining in the single market and customs union if given the choice.  For sure, I’d agree that that is Brexit-in-name-only, but a determined and united opposition party prepared to show some leadership on the issue could probably gain a majority around such a proposal.  It would be in line with what their voters and members are saying as well, but they seem no more able to unite on a clear line than the governing party.
There’s something strange and uncomfortable about a position where those doing most to mitigate the effects of Brexit are the unelected peers, whilst the main opposition party is effectively aiding and abetting the extremists through a lack of resolve, clarity and leadership.